Between Reviews: Non-Independent Film

Posted on August 15, 2009


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A book about censorship gives rise to thoughts about how free filmmakers really are in our supposedly free society.

AUG 16, 2009 – THE EASY-RIDER ZEITGEIST OF THE SIXTIES defined freedom as just another word for nothing left to lose. The lightness of being that comes with zero baggage, the state of being able to raise a lazy middle finger to normative society, the smugness of having transcended the need for permission or approval – all that’s freedom, the kind that filmmakers rarely have. Painters can obey their inner muse and position a splotch on the lower-left corner of a white canvas, and an art lover who senses in this abstraction the meaning of the universe may purchase it for untold millions. Poets can string together jagged shards of thoughts, heedless of the singsong formalities of metre and rhyme, and the result can come to be revered as a koan. But which filmmaker can afford to be truly free? He is forever sucked into a Bermuda Triangle shaped from the vertices of his own intentions, the expectations of the audience (whose tastes, in turn, influence the moneymen), and third, the impositions of the establishment.

Amongst the implementers of the latter, the Censor Board is possibly unmatched – not only in its Big Brotherly decrees of what a nation can (and should) see, but also in the arbitrariness of these adjudications, which are mostly the result of debate between a smattering of individuals with often tenuous connections to popular culture. It is, on reflection, laughable that a roomful of fifty- and sixty-year-olds resolves to excise from the public domain the very four-letter words and the very “immoral” acts that are embraced with a nonchalant shrug by their sons and daughters, the youth of today. But this is nothing new. As Someswar Bhowmick notes in the preface to his diligently researched (and eminently readable) Cinema and Censorship: The Politics of Control in India, “In India’s colonial period under British administration, film censorship evolved as an instrument for restraint on a particular domain of artistic creation, ostensibly on moral ground but there was an overt political angle to it as well.”

In the ensuing chapters, Bhowmick aims “at examining why that restraint continued even after independence, how it has metamorphosed, and with what characteristics.” Such a declaration of intent would make it appear that Cinema and Censorship isn’t quite the book to curl up with a half-hour before bedtime – and that’s true, but not for the reasons you’d imagine. It isn’t so much that the heavy-reading aspect will make you fall asleep as the fact that you could be prodded into extreme wakefulness by the nuggets he unearths, by the outrage you experience at what’s being done to free expression, and by the wry laughs to be had at some of the inane instances of censorship over the years. Take, for example, Anand Patwardhan’s anti-war, anti-nuclear docu-feature Jung Aur Aman, which was handed a list of suggested deletions that included “the scenes showing Pakistan burning India’s national flags.” (Nothing was said regarding Indians burning Pakistan’s national flag.) Better yet, “Delete all speeches by politicians, including those by the central ministers and even the prime minister.”

These impositions are hardly unprecedented. “Way back in 1964,” Bhowmick reveals, “Vijay Anand acted in a jingoist film Haqeeqat… which castigated the Chinese. This was subsequent to the Sino-Indian border conflict. The film received unprecedented state patronage and popular as well as media support. In 1971, Satyajit Ray had made a documentary Sikkim, on the way of life and culture of the then independent Himalayan kingdom. But after the kingdom was ‘annexed’ by India in 1976, the film fell foul of the official version about the new possession and was never cleared for public exhibition thereafter.” (And we’re talking about Ray here – Ray!) The author traces, in linear fashion, the ways and means (and even meanings) of censorship down the decades, and there’s an avalanche of fascinating anecdotes – like how the National Theatres of Madras, in 1937, had approached the Censor Board of Madras with the synopsis of the story of a girl who used to support her poor parents by spinning on the charkha. (They were bluntly told that such a ‘nationalistic’ project would never be passed for public exhibition.)

But my favourite parts of the book have to be the tables – which would be side-splitting if they weren’t also so sad – that detail why certain films (including now-revered classics like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin) were denied certification. In the 1940s, the censors refused to clear The Postman Always Rings Twice because it “portrays life which is not healthy to Indian society” and Matlabi because it’s full of “violent gangster incidents and lewd and obscene dances.” Better yet, in the 1950s, Gunehgar was advised to “delete close view of bust of Sarala as she is lying on her back in the gangster’s den,” South Sea Sinner was instructed to “omit the shot where the heroine while splashing water in a playful mood lifts her skirt a little too high,” and Minmini was asked to “delete close-up shots of Maya in nurse’s uniform where camera is focused on the nipple.” It’s a riot to imagine the hushed (and outraged) discussions in the screening rooms before these verdicts were arrived at.

And when not snipping away at parts of the female anatomy, they were ensuring that “life should be portrayed in such a manner that the laws of land are not brought into contempt or ridicule,” which is why, with Sarala (1953), the instruction was to “shorten Ramesh manhandling Gadadhar so as to remove the impression that a prisoner in a lock-up is assaulted in the presence of an Officer.” (Years later, during the Emergency, a worse fate would befall the infamous Kissa Kursi Ka.) But with these instances, there is at least a smidgen of rational thought – unlike the directive to knock off, from Jodi No. 1, the backdrop of a hoarding for Kingfisher beer. But the most confounding example in the book comes from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1980), where the family matriarch’s utterance of “Tumhari biwi ne to kasam kha rakhi hai ki tum chahe kitna bhi zor laga lo main beta nahin paida karne vali” had to be altered – the phrase “zor laga lo” to “shor macha lo.” In the former, the sense is that the wife won’t bear a boy no matter how much her husband pressures her, and in the latter, it’s no matter how much he shouts at her. Just who are these changes for, and what are they doing in a supposedly free society?

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